The Banyan tree, at the geographical center of Auroville, stood alone for the first 80 years of its life, on the barren red plateau that now supports Auroville's forests.
For all those years it was a lonely sentinel, a shady oasis on the footpath from the nearby hamlets to the city of Pondicherry , some 15 kilometers further south on the coastline. Villagers carrying their produce to sell or going to the markets to buy essentials would rest in the shade of that solitary tree. The fields around the tree supported rain-fed crops of peanut, ragi and kambu, local grains.
In 1968, the destiny of this eroded plateau changed forever when the Banyan was chosen to mark the center of the future international city of Auroville . On February 28, 1968 the inauguration ceremony was held just 100 meters away from this tree. Five thousand people came that day to start the city, bringing soil from 124 countries and all the Indian states to be deposited in a white marble urn set on a raised earthen mound in the open plain.
The Banyan tree found itself the center of attention; suddenly it was no more alone.
A wide ring with brass letters in Tamil and French was placed around the trunk of the tree with a message given by the Mother: “Auroville, the city at the service of Truth.” The whole amazing adventure of this city-to- be began to unfold.
The young Banyan tree c. 1969 just after the foundation of Auroville.
Soon the excavation for the Matrimandir began. People started to arrive in growing numbers to settle, and the Matrimandir workers' camp was built just 200 meters west of the Banyan Tree. This complex of simple thatched huts housed a rotating population of up to 20 Matrimandir construction volunteers at a time from 1971 to 1996. Books could be written about that quarter century of communal living!
The Banyan tree was surrounded by a circular bamboo fence in the mid-70's to keep the goats and cows from eating the aerial shoots which were descending from the green canopy so as to take root and support the spreading branches of the tree. Still the plains around were wide open and barren, the flatness of the plain being broken only by the remarkable sight of the four tall wooden towers rising from the foundation crater of Matrimandir which were built to hold the winches that lifted up concrete and materials for the growing ribs of Matrimandir.
The Banyan with its bamboo fence in the mid-70's
As construction proceeded on the Matrimandir a plant nursery was growing up under a grove of mango trees some 500 meters west of the Banyan tree. By the mid-80's the nursery was well established and the very first trials of planting in the gardens were made in what would be the future gardens area. A beginning was made to build the garden of Unity , which the Mother had spoken of as being around the Banyan tree at the center of the township. The bamboo fence around the tree was replaced by a ring of granite benches, and a symbolic planting of the specific flowering plants which had been chosen for the 12 gardens of Matrimandir was made just outside this granite ring.
Planting the beginning of the garden of Unity outside the ring of granite benches.
The more formal garden of Unity , as developed by Roger, the architect of Matrimandir, was first displayed as one element in the large rosewood model of the Matrimandir gardens which was exhibited under the Banyan tree on Feb 21st, 1971, on the occasion of the laying of the foundation stone of Matrimandir. Roger took a smaller version of that large model to the Mother and received her blessings.
The rosewood model being displayed at the Banyan in 1971
Much later, in 2002, as work on the sphere of Matrimandir neared completion and the design efforts turned towards the gardens work, Roger displayed a newer version of his gardens concept, again under the Banyan tree. In this model, a new pond was added in the garden, further away from the tree. The first hint of a plan for a low, stepped structure on the western side of this pool came into being then.
Roger's model from 2002
By 2006 the layout of the garden of Unity as we see it today had been sketched out by Roger and his team. This garden now had six subdivisions, no longer five, and the concept for a mini-amphitheater near the pond was fully developed. The design also featured an undulating pattern of benches under the Banyan tree, replacing the familiar and much-loved ring of granite benches that had been there since the mid-80's. The growth of this garden area, spanning almost two generations, has been a gradual transformation from a lone Banyan tree standing in the barren and dusty plains to the present day, with the Banyan and its 29 aerial roots now one of the three central elements, along with the sphere and the Urn, of the Matrimandir complex. To mark its importance as the center of Auroville, and to remind us that a painting of a person meditating under the tree's branches was named “The inner life” by the Mother, the original ring with brass lettering from the day of the foundation ceremony of Auroville has recently been replaced around the main trunk of the Banyan: “Auroville, the city at the Service of Truth.”
Map of the garden of Unity as it is planned today.
Much remains to be done with regard to planning the planting of the garden of Unity ; there are several different options being studied and trials have to be made.
The garden of Unity is a work in progress, needing to be reviewed at each stage of its growth. And as with all living gardens, it will always be evolutionary in principle, as the plants grow and as our perception of the garden grows. Roger, the architect, was very much aware of this evolutionary nature of the gardens to come. We build as best as we can today and remain open to growth and change as we ourselves grow and change.
A note from the Access Group
Several of you have been surprised, and a few disconcerted, at the unannounced change in parking venue at the Visitors Centre. You might have noticed that the old parking area had become too small, especially on Darshan days and holidays, to accommodate all the vehicles that come out to Auroville throughout the day. You might also have noticed that, given that most of the Auroville roads are dirt roads, huge clouds of dust were churned up by speeding vehicles. Not so nice for cyclists, motorcyclists or pedestrians. It was decided to reduce the volume of traffic on our roads as soon as possible.
This coincided with another long-held dream, to provide non-fossil fuel based transport for visitors to Matrimandir. This dream came true, recently, with one purchase of two 14-seater electric vehicles for this purpose. Both ‘golf carts' are now in operation daily, ferrying those who have a booking for the Matrimandir back and forth to the Visitors Centre. The amount of dust and vehicles on Auroville's roads has been noticeably reduced.
Another initiative has been the introduction of a daily shuttle between Pondicherry and Auroville by the Auroville bus. This 35-seater bus stands every morning from 8:15 to 8:30 a.m. near the entrance to the Ashram Playground and departs promptly at 8:30 a.m. for the Matrimandir via the Visitors Centre. The bus leaves Matrimandir around 11:15 and drops its passengers at the pick-up spot in time for lunch. There is a small fee for the round trip. No need for advance booking for a seat in the bus.
Please make sure that you arrive on time or ahead of time, but not late, as the distance to be covered is larger now. There will be someone to receive you and those in the ‘A' group will be brought up to Matrimandir right away in one of our electric vehicles, while those who are booked into the (introductory group) ‘B' group will be taken to see a film on Auroville. If there is anyone in your party who is aged or physically challenged and unable to walk the 100 meters to the Visitors Centre entrance, please inform our staff at the time of booking so that special arrangements can be made to allow your vehicle to proceed to the old entrance of the Visitors Centre. A small amount will be collected for parking fees as usual.
As for bookings, since the beginning of May we have opened
a line (262-2204) between 10:30 and 11:30
for people who have already done a concentration in the Matrimandir
to make a booking.
This will take some of the pressure off the afternoon booking times. Bookings for first-timers, or even old timers who are accompanying first-timers, will continue to be done between 2 and 4 p.m. only on the number, 262-2268.
Please do not phone in the morning if you want to bring somebody for the first time!
We are continuously looking for better ways to facilitate a smooth entry to Matrimandir. Your suggestions are welcome.
Address for donations and correspondence:
(Please make your cheque, money order or DD payable to ‘Matrimandir')
MATRIMANDIR – AUROVILLE 605101 – TAMIL NADU – INDIA
Bookings: Tel (+91) (0413) 262-2268; accounts: 262-2228
|Please note the new timings for visits to the Chamber:
Bookings : 2:00 to 4:00 p.m. daily
Concentration : 9:30 to 10:30 a.m. daily
First-time visits : 10:00 to 11:00 a.m. daily